The Origins of the Mute Swan and how they came to be in America
An Animal Rights Article from


Kathryn Burton, Save Our Swans
May 2005

This is a scientific report on the Mute swans of this continent and around the world, done by Robert Alison, PhD, a Canadian ornithologist who has worked with both the U.S. and Canadian governments. He has written extensively on the Mute Swans. He kindly worked with me and provided material he had used in the past in an effort to save the Mute Swans from forced extinction on this continent. We are hoping this, and a great deal of prayer, will help these wonderful birds, whose only sin,in the eyes of man, is that they protect their families, the way humans used to.


In view of rapidly unfolding developments aimed at making the mute swan extinct in the United States,it seems prudent to coalesce appropriate mute swan paleontological , historic and other information into a straightforward package, showing that mute swans are native to America. Four swan species can be found in Russia/Siberia/Kamchatka historically and today. This includes the mute swan. It can be shown the swans had a tradition of migrating across the Bering Straight or through the Aleutians, prior to the development of the American northwest and Canadian provinces, which didn’t occur to any great degree until the mid 1800s, when coincidentally,Mute Swans were first noted in those locales. There were earlier written records suggesting the swans seen by the early settlers were “such as we have at home,” meaning Europe, and their fossils and carcasses found on the American continent.

It will be shown in these papers that Mute Swan is circumpolar, known from Iceland to the Maritime Islands of Russia, when allowed to live, and according to Dr. Paul S. Martin, University of Arizona, and author of many books on the Great Migration from Asia and Pre-Columbian America, “The question is not would the mute swans be here? It is, rather, why wouldn’t it be?”

It is our contention, that Mute Swans accompanied Whooper, Trumpeter and /or Tundra swans to their winter migration areas, which would account for a late 1600s carcass found in Ontario; the deBry engravings of 1590s Virginia; the Currier and Ives lithograph of Tundras and Mutes (Haunts of the Wild Swans, Chesapeake Bay, Carroll Island, Maryland1872) described as “probably mute and tundra swans” in The Atlantic Flyway, written by Robert Elman; and in many notations, photographs and post card photographs on both coasts of America, across the northern tier states, in Colorado and Montana, Washington and Oregon, as well as British Columbia, and Ontario, in Canada, prior to 1918.

It should be noted, the traditional migration paths for swans on the American continent, paths that would have been used prior to colonist’s moves west and north, i.e., Washington State and Oregon, British Columbia, the Great Lakes area, etc. are all areas in which the agencies have created the first programs for the extinction of wild Mute Swans on this continent. Why? Because they are there and have been, traditionally.

Quid pro Quo

Comments by pro-Mute Swan citizens and listened, instead, to their hunting license buyers, at the crux of the matter. “We don’t have to listen to the mob!” is a quote from Mr. Throckmorton, of the USF&W, immediately after more than 3,000 pro-swan letters were received and only thirty from the anti-swan people in a Call for Public Comment for the Federal Register, in 2004.

The “war against the Mute Swan,” as described by Ruth Gale, of the Trumpeter Swan Society, was launched to announce a program to kill off Mutes in Yosemite on the basis that they might compete for habitat with the larger, more aggressive Trumpeter swans. The Society is peopled by many state and federal agency people, most in retirement, and has been funded for many years by U.S. tax money. Their original goal was to reestablish populations of Trumpeters in their historic range, but that changed, to putting them everywhere from coast to coast and creating a new “trophy bird,” the largest waterfowl on this continent, to which Harvey Nelson, then president of the Society, agreed. Mute swans were to be “ neutered and pinioned and placed in parks,” a one generation extinction on this continent. U.S. Federal funds are at this moment, being used to grow a small hunting organization headed by Scott Petrie (See Longpoint Website, “history.”) on the northern side of the Great Lakes, at Long Point, to promulgate and promote the extinction of Mute Swans for the benefit of the new “trophy bird,” whose life patterns are very similar to the Mutes.

There has already been a hunting season on Trumpeters in the Pacific Flyway, with a population of less than 27,000 on the continent and after more than seventy years of money and effort being spent on recovery.

Being an equal opportunity enforcer, Federal agents also “remove” Whooper and Bewickii swans from Southwestern Alaska, the northern Pacific, or anywhere they are found, including the Audubon Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The Whoopers are another circumpolar swan, known from Iceland, through Europe and Asia to America, via the same, ancient migration routes. They are a named species in the MBTA of 1918.

The Reach of Federal Agency Influence on a Statewide Basis

Other, smaller, organizations influenced by the USF&W’s needs and generosity include Connecticut Ornithological Association, previously a respected group. Their interpretation of Hill v Norton, in which the Mute Swans were restored to MBTA coverage was fascinating:

“Recent media articles on Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with headlines such as “ Federal Law Speaks for Mute Swans,” and “Protection of Mute Swans Ordered By Federal Court” may create the impression that there are new research findings on the status of Mute Swans or that new protections have been ordered. This is not the case……..” Oh, really? That is EXACTLY what the court said.

Since that organization (COA)did the Mute Swan count annually for the State DEP, such biased opinion could have negative repercussions for the birds. This was manifested in a State DEP letter to USF&W offering to kill off 85% of the mute swans in the state in one year, not ten, as put forward in a plan presented by the federal agency. It was touted as “more cost effective.” The population of mute swans as “exploding,” when actual population figures for Mute Swans in Connecticut, according to the State’s own tallies, state “these numbers have remained stable (at 1300 to 1500)for about a dozen years. There was no EXPLOSION as described in a state agency news release, clearly showing bias and manipulated science. Recently, COA has joined forces with all of the other NGOs favored with NF&W generosity and power.

Historic Evidence

The migrations from Russia/Siberia/Kamchatka/Aleutians are legendary in scope, described in awe by early explorer scientists. While Dezhnev discovered what became Bering’s Straight in 1648, Kamchatka was not “discovered” by the Russians, until 1697 and it was in the 1720s, the potential of its natural resources came under the crown. The west coast of America would stay virtually unpopulated and unknown, except by Native Americans, trappers and hunters, until the early 1800s and the explorations of Lewis and Clark. In the late 1800s, Pleistocene fossil remains of mute type swans in Oregon were found, again within that flyway taken by so many migratory birds, including three swan species.

Especially important, was a mute swan sternum found by Walter Kenyon at Fort Albany, Canada and dated at 1679-1721 and identified by Donald H. Baldwin a professor of ornithology and former staff person at the Royal Ontario Museum, where the specimen is kept. In those years, 1679-1721, the Ft. Albany area was described thusly in Illustrated History of Hudson’s Bay Company, by Peter C. Newman: “There being no Towns nor Plantations in this country, but two or three poor forts to defend the Factories, ….we were loath to let our History open with the description of so miserable a Wilderness.” There was no colonizing in this wilderness, it was a place of hunters and trappers who ate what they shot, not a place where swans would be imported, as both Tundra and Trumpeters were found there, too. In fact, a trumpeter was nearby the mute on this dig and it still had a bullet in its carcass. These were wild birds, not brought by the hand of man, but by the call of migration. This is the earliest mute swan find on this continent, other than fossilized specimens found in Oregon, Idaho and Arizona, to date.

This Canadian area is in a migration route for other swans, and as they do in Europe, Asia, and here in America, Mute Swans very well might have joined the passing flocks and developed a migration route with Tundras, moving east out of the Russian Maritimes (Dement‘ev), east across to N.Georgia Island, Baffin Land, to St Lawrence Island, to the Alaska Peninsula and the Northwest Territories, going south from Hudson’s Bay, over the Great Lakes, as the Interior Department’s case so clearly showed is a migration route for Mute Swans even today, and into the United States.

In 1785, Thomas Pennant published Artctic Zoology, in which he describes the Mute Swan and continues “found in a wild state in some parts of Russia; but far more plentiful in Siberia. It arrives in summer, later from the south, and does not spread so far north (as the tundra) Those which frequent the provinces of Ghilan and Masenderan, on the south of the Caspian Sea, grow to a vast size……” John Latham, in 1830, repeats that description. Dement’ev, in Birds of the USSR, states that the mute swans can be found many places in the former USSR, including in the Russian Maritime, across from Alaska They winter in Kamchatka and northern Japan, as well as European and Asian countries, and have been known as

far west as Iceland, and traveling with tundras in Saskatchewan. The presence of Mute Swans in Alaska was revealed in a Trumpeter Swan Society meeting, in which the use of three neck band colors were required, to differentiate among Trumpeter, Tundra and Mute swans, in Alaska.

Three of the four species of swan that live in Russia/Siberia are known to migrate to the American continent, and the Trumpeter, has been found in fossil form in the Aleutians and migrants have been noted on the continent of Asia. The tundras in America, are known to cross over to northeastern Siberia, for nesting, according to William Sladen. To quote another well know representative of The Trumpeter Swan Society, “ swans do what they want to do, go where they want to go….”

In 1925, there was still an east and west migration along the Aleutian chain. Birds from the western Aleutians came eastward in the fall, raising the question of their coming from Siberia, which of course now we know is true and not uncommon.. Migrating Whoopers, Bewickii and Mute Swans have been so unfortunate as to fly onto the American continent on both coasts and paid the ultimate price, despite MBTA protection, not hunted, but simply killed.

The various species of swans often fly and winter together, even today. Mute swans flying with flocks of Trumpeters or Tundras are not unusual in Canada and in the United States. This might have given the impetus for the killing of Mute Swans on federal lands by federal employees, on the possibility it might compete with introduced Trumpeter Swans, during the early days of the “replacement program.” Such activities have been promoted and endorsed by both the USF&W and the Trumpeter Swan Society, a private nonprofit group heavily peopled by ex-Service and Agency retirees and funded in large part by Federal grants and accommodations, including flights in U.S. government planes and assistance by government employees.

They have also both endorsed a trial hunting season on the most rare swan in the world, the Trumpeter Swan, the focus of an enormously expensive, extensive restoration program covering a period from the 1920s to this day. It has provided post retirement opportunities to many ex-USF&W agents, ultimately aimed at producing a new “trophy bird” for hunters.

An “open swan season,” meaning all swans are considered game birds, has been suggested by USF&W and agreed to by Trumpeter Swan Society, but one might say in essence, it already exists, outside the intent and strictures of both the various swan protecting treaties and the MBTA.

Mute Swans in Early America

Anecdotal and other information from contemporary reports and journals authored by early North American naturalists, explorers and colonists indicate a mute swan presence in colonial times. Recurrent references specifically state that some of the swans encountered in colonial North America were the same as the swans with which the writers were familiar from the Old World. For example, LaHontan sorted out “birds such as we have at home” and birds new to him, or similar but not the same. He includes swans under “such as we have at home.” He would have known the Mute Swan.

Perplexingly, some prominent early ornithologists failed to include mutes in their otherwise thorough treatments of North American avifauna (Chapman 1906, Bent 1925), and their works are therefore unhelpful in that regard, although S.Dillon Ripley (Secretary of the Smithsonian) stated that mute swans have been decorating our streams and lakes since colonial days.” Was the English “Royal Bird,” unacceptable to colonists, most of whom had left Britain to avoid such Royal symbolism and what it stood for? Remnants of those sentiments have been witnessed in recent years.

Mute Swans

Swans encountered in 17th Century New York were described as being “similar to…and full as large as “ the swans of the Netherlands (Murphy 1650) and “like those of the Netherlands ( Van der Donck 1656). Such references support the hypothesis that mutes were present in early colonial times, as neither tundra swans nor trumpeters were ever native to New York.

Seasonal Movements of Swans

The significance of traditional movements to breeding areas cannot be overlooked, as they are ancient appointments, kept every year. The words “probably whistling or trumpeter swan,” are used often, by people who are unaware of the extensive distribution of mute swans, and because of the difficulty, often noted, of telling the three major swans of America apart at any distance during migration. /p>

The trumpeter was in such small numbers in the market hunting years and into the 1900s that they were thought extinct and dropped from the AOU list of American birds.

TThe little Bewick’s swans fly from northeastern Russia/Siberia to Holland to over winter. Going in the other direction, Strenjneger suggested a line of migration from the Arctic Ocean to the Asian side via Bering Straights, as well as down the American coast. This is well known today and the path taken by some tundra swans, and we believe mutes.

Lewis and Clark Sightings

There are thirteen sightings of swans before they mention seeing or hearing the Trumpeters and tundras and excitedly write to President Jefferson about them. This took place in March of 1806, at the mouth of the Columbia River (Geological journal of Lewis and Clark). Trumpeters migrate north as early as February and as late as the end of May. Neither would be found in Kansas/Missouri as late as July 4-7,1804 the dates on which the Lewis and Clark Journals state “ we passed a lake with many young swans…” Several of the birds were brought back to camp as food, without a mention of “The American swan.” This omission indicates the swans they encountered were familiar to them, the swans encountered earlier in Virginia in 1598 by the English explorers, as seen in the deBry engravings; the unnamed swans kept at Monticello by Jefferson, Mute Swans. /p>

CCount G.E.Belltrami, accompanied Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition into the Minnesota and Red River Valleys. On July 13,1823, the Count mentioned seeing swans, young and old, at what is now Swan Lake (Nicolett County) “In the evening we halted near a little wood which lies along the banks of the Lake of Swans. It was the season in which these beautiful birds cannot fly-the old ones because they are changing their feathers and the young, because they have yet only a soft down.” (Banko,Trumpeter Swan) Lake Erie on August 10, 1679 (Hennepin 1698) outside the historic breeding ranges of either the trumpeter or tundra swans (Bellrose 1976). Mute swan occurrences in colonial times have been previously suggested (Sibley 1965; the swans were present in the 1800’s (Stokes and Stokes 1996).

Paleontological Considerations:

Fossils discovered at several sites in the United States represent a now-extinct mute swan genotype, described by Cope as “ Represented by numerous bones,especially by four metatarsals, two of which are nearly perfect, indicating a species very near those now existing, but apparently distinct.” ( the Mute Swan was called Sthenelides olor at the time and it is named in these papers as Sthenelides olor, later changed to Cygnus olor.the species name used today.) Trumpeter swans were also found on that site, Fossil Lake, Oregon, dated as late Pleistocene in the definitive studies by Howard, making them more relevant to today than the earlier designation of Pliocene. /p>

Analogous Pleistocene fossil swan material was discovered at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Pierce Brodkorb of the University of Florida described the specimen, later dubbed Olor hibbardi. It is a Mute Swan homologue (G. McDonald, 2001) This study was cancelled.

Convincing paleontological evidence suggests beyond reasonable doubt that mute swans, or swans homologous with mutes, occurred in North American in prehistoric times (Cirianca 1997). North American Miocene and Pleistocene swan fossil bones, consistently larger than trumpeter or tundra swan material, have been identified as mute swans or swans homologous to mutes, and not trumpeters or tundra swans (op. cit.).

The skeletal architecture of mute swans is so distinctive that positive identification using modern investigative techniques is readily achievable (Savage Trachea and syrnx size and shape are particularly instructive in that regard (Boyd 1972).

More than 1000 Pleistocene bones of the Anatidae, discovered in the late 1880’s at Fossil Lake, Oregon, have been scrutinized in research spanning over 100 years, and ongoing at the University of Oregon. Among the Fossil Lake material are bones of a fossil Cygnus species belonging to a homologous group of which the mute swan is a member (Wetmore 1959). The specimens represent a type of mute-like swan in which the trachea is not looped, distinctly unlike the looped trachea of both the trumpeter and tundra swans (Howard 1946). Initially named Cygnus paloregonus, this now-extinct species has skeletal features unlike those of the trumpeter, and is too large to be a tundra swan (Wetmore 1959).

Arizona has yielded a late-Pleistocene fossil of similar mute swan type (Howard 1956, Bickert

In combination, these fossil swans from different North American sites confirm a prehistoric presence of a North American mute swan homologue. These data suggest that an ancestral proto-mute swan, whose place of origin is unknown, but points to generated lineages that evolved locally and simultaneously in North America and Eurasia, shaped divergently by different local environmental pressures but nonetheless homotaxic—perhaps differing at the subspecies level.

Thomas Pennant in Arctic Zoology,1792 stated “The Mute Swan, or that which we call the Tame, is found in a wild state in some parts of Russia; but far more plentiful in Siberia. It arrives in summer, from the south and does not spread so far north. Those on the South of the Caspian sea grow to a vast size.“ Mute swans to this day winter on the southern end of the Caspian, according to Dement’ev, Birds of the USSR. Bergman had an answer to size gradation in birds and mammals as they exist in more northerly latitudes, and Feduccia cites a woodpecker species that is much larger in the far north than the same species found in more southerly latitudes, for example.

The parental stock might have originated in the New World or Old World, then pioneered to become established across the Northern Hemisphere. Eventually, the North American genotype became extinct whereas the Eurasian morph survived into modern times, taking the Pacific Coast or cross Great Lakes Migration routes.

Stejneger (1741)noted many birds migrating from America to Asia and suggested these observations pointed to there being a line of migration from the Arctic Ocean to the Asian side via Bering straits, as well as down the American coast, as we all now know is true.

Paul S. Martin, U of AZ, (pers comm.) stated “I am inclined to agree with your interpretation and your findings. I think the question “Why the mute swan would be (native) on this continent?” is well put. The matter is indeed worthy of research …prior to any effort to eliminate mute swans from the United States.”

Dr. Martin is author of numerous scholarly books and papers on pre-Columbian America and an expert in the Great Migrations and the Ice Age.

Mute swan mobility is well documented (Scott 1972, Bellrose 1976). Extensive migratory and pioneering movements have been recorded in Europe, Asia and North America. It is certainly not impossible that the ancient mute swan genotype could have dispersed, hemisphere-wide, perhaps via the Bering Land Bridge. The proximity of Kamchatka Peninsula, the site of a mute swan population, to Alaska suggests such a relocation is feasible. An Iceland population, once established, has since disappeared (Sutton 1961) and that stock doubtless pioneered from Europe; vagrant occurrences of mute in Iceland continue (op.cit.).

At this point, the mute swan forerunner and prototype is a hypothetical bird. Its North American lineage did not survive into modern times. But, there is no doubt that that lineage was indigenous to the continent. The word ‘indigenous’ implies naturally produced; ‘native’ implies naturally inhabiting. There is an implicit assumption of no human involvement.

The now-extinct North American mute swan homologue was indigenous and native, an arrested genotype whose development ended prematurely, along with other faunal victims of the so-called phenomenon of ‘Pleistocene extinction’ (Savage,

Since a swan species homotaxic with the mute swan was present in North American in Pleistocene times, and perhaps earlier, regardless of the place of origin of its ancestral stock, the eventual importation from Eurasia of modern mute swans to North America constituted a homecoming, a reintroduction, of birds whose homologous ancestors had been present in North America long before. Future research is crucial to determine the chronology, and other details, of the evolution of the mute swan.

There is the provocative possibility that some Eurasian vagrant mute swans might have naturally pioneered into North America in recent centuries, in much the same manner as the Iceland stock arose.

In combination, all pertinent items of evidence coalesce into a scenario strongly suggestive that mutes were part of the North American avifauna in early colonial times.

It is indisputable that mute swans were in North America in the early 20th Century, when the MBC and MBTA were drafted and ratified. It would be extremely unlikely that the formulators of the MBC were unaware that mute swans were present in North America at that time. If they did not know about the swans, they should have. Article 1 of the MBC most probably contemplated mute swans in North America, and failure of the MBC to exclude the birds specifically from its protective provisions appears to confirm the MBC’s authors did not intend for them to be excluded.

The fossils confirm a prehistoric presence in North America of a mute swan homologue. The fossil swan was indigenous; its occurrence in North America was due to natural events.

At present, about 16,000 mute swans occur in at least 16 states and three Canadian provinces, seemingly descended from stock imported from the United Kingdom and Europe, although some natural pioneering of mutes from Iceland, Russia/Siberia and Europe to North America might have taken place. Historical evidence suggests some mutes were present in the US in colonial times, as stated by S.Dillon Ripley.

The Migratory Birds Convention (1916) is the primary authority for federal protection of migratory birds—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is its enabling legislation. Neither specifically name mute swans, but the Anatidae family, of which the mute swan is a member, is listed as a protected group of waterfowl. Mute swans were present in North America when the MBC was fashioned, and had they not been intended for protection, the MBC would doubtless have so indicated. We have hundreds of photos, post cards and stereopticon views pre-1916.

Nonetheless, virtually ever since, federal authorities have operated as if mute swans are unprotected by the MBTA.

However, in 2001, a DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled all Anatidae are protected by the MBTA, including the mute swans. Legislative steps to remove federal mute swan protection have been initiated, based on the contention, however faulty, that the bird is not indigenous to North America, or rather that is the excuse used by state and federal agencies to justify killing programs .

SSince ancestral mute swans were prehistoric inhabitants of North America, modern introductions of Eurasian mutes constitute a reintroduction, a homecoming, through surviving kin, of a once-present genotype that became extinct.


The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is the heaviest but not the largest of the world’s six swan species. Average adult male weight of 26 pounds 14 oz (12.2 kg) and body length of 56-60 inches, combined with a conspicuous fleshy forehead knob, constitute unmistakable features that make misidentification unlikely. Characteristic erect showy ornamental wing and scapular feathers and a habit of keeping the neck in an s-shaped curve, are often helpful in recognizing the bird at a distance. /p>

Taxonomically, the mute swan is one of three closely-related species; the other two are black swan (C.atratus) and black-necked swan (C. melanocoryphus). Its probable nearest relative is the black swan of Australia (Boyd 1972, Johnsgard 1978). The trumpeter swan (C. buccinator) is most closely related to the whooper swan (C. Cygnus) of Eurasia. The tundra swan’s (C. columbianus) closest relative is Bewick’s swan (C. bewickii) of Eurasia. Some taxonomic classifications consider trumpeters and whoopers as subspecies of the same species; tundra and Bewick’s swans as subspecies of another species (Delacour 1948). But, mute swans are consistently considered a totally separate species: there are no mute swan subspecies.

Modern mute swans occur naturally in Eurasia: Netherlands, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Belgium, France, Norway, Switzerland, Austria and Turkey, in a more-or-less continuous distribution. There are isolated subpopulations in Iran, Afghanistan and at Lake Baikal Coastal Russia,Siberia, and in Mongolia. Mutes go on migration to India, China.The easternmost breeding records are from Kamchatka, Russia (Pennant1792).An historical population occurred in Iceland (Sutton 1961), but has since disappeared, although there have been vagrant sightings there since then. So, one might say the mute swans circle the globe in certain latitudes and it should not be a surprise that the fossils placed them on this continent, within that latitudinal range.

Mute swans have been successfully introduced in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and North America (Scott 1972). In North America, they currently occur in at least 16 states and three Canadian provinces, although their total continental population has never gone higher than 16,000. In many of these jurisdictions, the birds are sometimes criticized for alleged undesirable behavior, especially destructive impacts on other waterfowl. Much of this negative publicity is unwarranted. (Conover 1994)

Nonetheless, anti-mute swan sentiment pervades state, provincial and federal wildlife management agency agendas, this can be suggested to be dictated by the fact this bird is not hunted, therefore does not "pay its way" for studies or protective activities.. Preconception favoring mute swan population reduction is widespread; proponents are becoming increasing vocal and vehement, especially since the recovery and recent "placement" of trumpeter swans, positioned as a "trophy bird," and already hunted in the U.S. Pacific Flyway. But, hypothetical elements in the rationale for this anti-mute tendency cloud its defensibility.

AA comprehensive assessment of pertinent paleontological evidence pertaining to mute swan prehistory in North America has been plagued by recurrent interpretive disharmony and obvious political stances and even personal agendas. Intriguing historical information has similarly failed to gel into a convincing hypothesis. A consolidation of these data into a concise persuasive assessment is pivotal to mute swan management because it could generate a solid understanding of the bird’s ancient and historical status in North America.

Swan Conservation

Owing to their esthetic appeal, stemming largely from their attractive plumage and regal postures, there has been a powerful enduring international infatuation with the birds, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Mute swans were painted on the walls of Bronze Age caves. Fondness for these swans was especially acute in England where first written mention was as early as 300 AD. In 1482, during the reign of Edward VI, the ‘Act for swans’ (Anon. 1482) came into force to curb soaring mute swan poaching. Thereafter, swan protection was a regular feature of British wildlife conservation. Henry VIII also protected the mute swans and codified laws to protect them, within the protection of the Royal House. /p>

In North America, swan protection, nor any other bird or waterfowl protection, was not a general legislative priority up until the 19th Century, although some states and provinces had earlier swan protection laws. By 1880, collapsing bird populations in general prompted mounting concern. In 1884, the Committee on Bird Protection was established to combat huge bird losses due to the millinery trade. Swan mortality was soaring to unacceptable heights (Hewitt 1921), one of the reasons the American Ornithologist’s Union drafted a ‘Model Bird Law’ in 1886. It was a well-intentioned but largely ignored initiative.

But, by 1913, a “Federal Bird Law’ had been appended to an agricultural appropriation bill. It assigned migratory bird management to federal authorities. Mounting pressure from within the Senate generated interest in pursuing a federal migratory bird treaty with Canada. Much of its impetus came from the American Game Protection and Propogation Association whose 1913 annual meeting in Ottawa featured much discussion of possible contents of an international bird accord. A draft migratory bird treaty was presented to Canada by the US government for consideration later that year.

In the spring of 1914, Canadian officials discussed possible provisions with the US Biological Survey. In 1915, at the annual meeting of the Commission of Conservation, the urgency of protecting “our native birds” was raised by C. Gordon Hewitt, Canada’s first federal biologist. It was the only recorded instance in which the term ‘native birds’ arose in the context of pre-treaty international deliberations.

There is no record of formal discussions or compromise strategies by US or Canadian delegates leading up to the final treating wording. In August 1916, the Migratory Birds Convention was signed in Washington by the British Ambassador (for Canada) and the US Secretary of State. The enabling legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, came into force in 1918, and was ratified in 1920. A similar Canadian ratification pertained to Canada’s enabling legislation, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, that same year.

The treaty listed five avian families in Article 1: “Anatidae or waterfowl, including ducks, geese and swans”, as well as Gruidae, Rallidae, Limicolae and Columbidae, all identified as migratory game birds. Also listed were 27 groups of migratory insectivorous birds and several groups of migratory nongame birds. The text did not name individual species; there was no indication of which swan species were intended under the term “swans”, but it is likely that the word ‘swans’ was intended to be all-inclusive. There is nothing in the MBC to suggest it was intended to exclude mute swans. It is possible the treaty architects merely overlooked all non-native avifauna, or considered the mute swan to be unimportant. More likely, they adopted wording meant to cover all contingencies, including exotic birds that might be established in North America. There is no contemporary documentation to decisively clarify why the MBC named entire avian families rather than their specific members, but it may be assumed that it was to allow the importation of additional species of ducks, geese and other hunted birds.

Regardless, a federal ad hoc policy eventually took shape in which mute swans were considered exotic birds, managed as if unprotected by the MBTA. There was, however, no legitimate legal endorsement for operating as if mute swans did not quality for MBC protection. Its was legislatively indefensible.

On Dec. 28, 2001, the US DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the MBTA term “Anatidae or waterfowl, including ducks, geese and swans” incorporates all swans in North America, including mute swans. There is no evidence the MBC intended to bar North American introductions of exotic birds. It is not unreasonable to interpret the MBC anticipated exotic bird introductions, and that its formulators expected the MBC to apply to introduced as well as native birds. There is no compelling reason to conclude otherwise.

In April 2004, Hon. Wayne Gilchrist of Maryland introduced Congressional legislation to amend the MBTA to exclude exotic birds from federal protection. In November 2004, the resulting “Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 2004” was appended to an Omnibus spending bill. The aim of that legislation is to remove from MBTA protection those species specified by the Secretary of the Interior.

IIt is sensible to surmise that the treaty architects foresaw the inevitability of exotic birds becoming established in North America, and fashioned the MBC text to be general enough to accommodate that development. Unclouding the perplexing uncertainties regarding the mute swan in North America ought to be a priority. Unknowns permeate many legitimate questions. They need to be resolved.


Major work on this paper was contributed by Robert Alison,PhD, who works for the Canadian and U.S. environmental agencies in the field of avian management. Howard Savage (now deceased) was a former staff paleontologist at the University of Toronto, Department of Ornithology, and his many comments on swan bones over the years are greatly appreciated. Gerry Martz is a former Michigan Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist who detailed the history of Mute Swans in that state. Jeff Bickart was involved in the early study of Arizona mute swan fossils and his comments in that regard were passed along to me.

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